Listening to the Heartbeat of God

On September 26, the Orthodox Church commemorates the repose of St. John the Apostle, Evangelist, and Theologian. St. John was the son of Salome the Myrrh-bearer and Zebedee, a fisherman.  He was also the brother of the Apostle James, and together they were known as “the Sons of Thunder.”

He was the youngest of the apostles and was the closest to Jesus during His earthly ministry.  St. John was called “the one whom Jesus loved.” He was present at the healing of Jarius’s daughter and at the Transfiguration. St. John followed Jesus after His arrest, was in the courtyard of the high priest, and was the only apostle to stand with the Jesus’ mother Mary (as we call her in Orthodoxy the Theotokos) at the foot of the Cross.  And after the Crucifixion, St. John took the Theotokos into his home to care for her as Jesus had asked.

St. John wrote his Gospel in AD 96, and it’s considered to be the last of the Gospels written.  He also wrote three pastoral letters as well as the book of Revelation. 

St. John was the disciple who reclined against Jesus’ chest during the Last Supper.  He was able to listen to the heartbeat of God. 

He listened to the very center of creation and the center of life. The ancients believed that the heart was the center of our being—our very essence resided there they thought—so in this sense St. John was listening to the very essence of the Creator of all.

St. John’s action shows us that we all need to listen for God in each other. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and all carry the divine spark of that creation. We are, in a very real way, living icons of God the Creator, so when we see another person, we see God. 

St. Benedict, writing in his “Rule for Monasteries,” told his monks that they were to receive all as Christ in this way:  “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ Matt 25:35.” (Rule of St. Benedict 53).
We need to see the image of God in every person we meet, because God is present in each and every created human, regardless of what they do.  So listening is an important part of our prayer life because as we listen to God and to other human beings we welcome them as we’d welcome Christ. Thus prayer is a conversation with God and through God with our fellow human beings as God empowers us to welcome them.

This conversation has to travel in both directions—“up” and “across” to others. So prayer isn’t simply sitting and rattling off a list of things that we hope for and desire, but a conversation with the One who created all things.

I always like to keep in mind that God knows what I’m going to pray for even before I form the words.  I also try to remember that God wants to speak to me as much as I wish to speak with Him.

Sometimes God speaks to us through another person. There is the old untrue (but nevertheless instructive!) story of a man who is trying to escape a flood.  The newscaster on the television tells him a flood is coming and to flee.  But the man says “God will take care of me.”  Then the flood comes and soon he is on his roof and a man in a boat comes by to rescue him, “No thanks,” the man says, “God will take care of me.”  Then a helicopter comes and the man makes the same response.  Finally he drowns and meets God and he asks God why He did not help him. God says, “I sent you a newscast, a man in a boat and a helicopter!” 

God does speak through others and we need to listen. Trying to figure out what is God’s voice and what is our own is called discernment. A spiritual guide can be very useful in the discernment process. But most important is listening to God’s heartbeat. And to get as close to God as St. John was requires practice. And that “practice” has – for millennia – been called “The Jesus Prayer.” And the history of the Christian Church proves that it has worked for countless of the faithful.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?  This is an age-old question.  Our first instinct is to say that, yes, it does; but in reality it does not.  For something to make a “noise” it needs a receiver or something to interpret that sound.  If there’s nothing to receive and interpret that sound, there is no sound.  If God is speaking and we aren’t listening, we can’t hear. But unlike that tree, He continues to speak to us.

To listen to God is to listen deep within ourselves.  St. John laid his head on the chest of Christ and listened to His heartbeat.  He felt the warmth of the Savior on his cheek, and his head rose and fell with each breath Jesus breathed. 

St. John listened deep within Christ to hear Him through His heart. To listen to God is to listen with our very souls. To listen to God is to “place our heads on His chest” as St. John did and “feel” His warmth and really listen to what God is saying to us means that we need a way to do this without leaning on Jesus’ actual chest.
So how can we do this? The Celts believed that we could hear and see God in all of creation that God exists in every created thing. They were partly correct.

The Creator is part of the creation.  In the book of Genesis, we read the creation story, and we see that after God created all that we see, He looked at it and said it was good.  We are surrounded by God, and if we take the time—really take the time—to listen, we can hear Him speaking to us.  But for us to hear, we have to slow down and listen.

St. John teaches us that we need to pause and listen for the heartbeat of God in each person and in all of creation. What are you listening for?

From my new book “Listening to the Heartbeat of God” available from Regina Orthodox Press

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